MGF supplies the support systems that allow construction companies to dig their excavations. Founder Michael O’Hara shares the secrets of his 35-year success with Maria McGeoghan.
Ask Michael O’Hara for the best advice to anyone setting up their own business and he doesn’t miss a beat with his reply: “Find work, price it right, do it right, and get paid for it. If you don’t do all these things right then it won’t be a good business. You always have to look to being cheaper, quicker, lighter, faster, better.”
And he should know. As the founder and owner of MGF, now celebrating its 35th anniversary, 71-year-old O’Hara has seen more success than failure.
MGF works on projects large and small throughout the UK. From housing to high-profile and complex basement excavations, MGF is there at the very start, shoring up trenches with its wide range of products, which it also designs and manufactures.
It’s a very successful business model that O’Hara talks about with real passion, humour and fondness. Growing up in Oldham as part of a big Irish family, making the move into the construction business was almost pre-ordained.
“I always wanted a go at my own business,” says O’Hara. “In the late 60s and 70s, construction was an Irish industry. “You’d see all the men lined up after 11 o’clock mass. It was a job market as well as a social thing. I grew up surrounded by it all.”
He went to school in Greenacres in Oldham and grew up in a happy 100-yard triangle between home, church and school before being summoned to the head teacher’s office in 1957 and told he would be a grammar school boy. A long daily bus and train journey to De La Salle Grammar meant very early starts but an introduction to a new world.
“It was a bit strange at first but as soon as got some mates I loved it,” he remembers. “I loved the camaraderie of it all.
“If it was a foggy day and someone was late we would all wait for them at Victoria station so we could all say the weather had made us late. We stuck together and this year it will be 60 years since we all first met.”
He’s still in touch with those same friends now and every other year they meet up to swap stories and find out how life is treating them all. They’ve all done De La Salle proud, with old boys succeeding in everything from writing plays to running the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It’s a theme that runs through the whole MGF story: fierce loyalty and building and keeping long-term relationships.
O’Hara went on to study maths, physics and chemistry at A-level, completed a civil engineering degree at the University of Manchester and got married as soon as he graduated. “People talk about being the first in their family to go to university – I was the first one with a pen,” he jokes. “It was my escape hatch.”
Every summer holiday he worked for George Dew construction in Oldham doing just about anything, and he then started a job with GHL clean water engineers. But the urge to go out on his own was always there.
“I wanted to make some money,” he says. “I wanted something better. The Irish call it the ‘great hunger’. It’s more than just about what happened in the potato famine, it’s about working towards security. Making your life better.”
So, in 1971, he left his job and set up a contracting company with two other directors and it started to do well. “We all worked really hard,” he explains. “I didn’t take a holiday in seven years, but we were lucky and made some good money.”
A natural storyteller, O’Hara’s hilarious account of a dalliance with construction explosives is the stuff of legend. While working on a huge water main project in Hebden Bridge, his team came across massive boulders that could only be broken up by gelignite.
“Remember, Belfast was in flames at this time and here was I looking for jelly,” he laughs. He went to the local police station where a young bobby issued him with the three licences required to purchase, store and fire the explosives and set off to buy the gelignite from a central store.
“I loaded up 25 pounds of jelly and 400 detonators into the back of my little green van and set off for the site,” he says. “On the way, I phoned home and my wife told me that the police had phoned and I had to take it straight back.
“So, I went home with it and put the gelignite under the stairs and the detonators in the kitchen. When she found out what it was she went mad. We had two babies asleep upstairs.”
During the night, he had visits from the police and an angry chief fire officer but they didn’t want to take the gelignite off him so the following morning he set off for the Hebden Bridge site and “started blowing stuff up”.
He shakes his head and laughs, remembering the adventure and the innocence and folly of youth.
Good luck played a big part in their success and even the weather was on their side during the long, hot summer of 1976 when they undertook a big drainage job. “The water table was a lot lower than normal,” he recalls. “It was like a seam of gold. The job should have taken 18 months to two years but we started at Easter and finished in October. We made a ball of money out of that job.”
As the business grew, O’Hara realised that he needed to recruit more expertise, but his directors were reluctant to change so in the end they bought him out. He then invested in another construction company but it got caught up in a complex legal claim, which coincided with a major recession.
“I had to be at the banks at 6am every day to see what I could spend,” he remembers. “I was working 100 hours a week and losing money. I had been the golden boy but all that had changed.”
Then, in 1981, he’d had enough of contracting and decided to investigate trench boxes, which had been developed in Germany. He bought the equipment from a company called MGF – translated as “Machines and Appliances of the Ground from Fernthal” – and called the company the same name to save on branding.
“I decided I didn’t want to work with any partners,” he says. “I thought that if I go under then it’s just my fault.” He bought the trench boxes from Germany, rented them out to UK construction companies and calculated that the business would be financially independent in seven years. Thanks to some very lucky encounters with banks, he managed to get through the seven years and the rest is history.
MGF started to make trench boxes itself, which suited the increasingly safety-conscious building industry, and moved from doing 20 designs a year to 5,000. The company now employs 375 people, with a proud record of sponsoring and hiring local engineering graduates, has 11 depots around the UK from Dartford to Durham and revenues of £34m last year.
“You do what you have to do,” adds O’Hara. “You need luck, opportunities and good people. We are not the finished article as a business and now it’s my turn to stand back and let our new managing director, Simon Littlewood, and the team get on with it.
“Success is a strong brew and it needs to be handled carefully. Good people make a business great. I want to leave a good footprint, but I wish I was 36 again.”
New managing director has vision for business
As the new managing director of MGF Excavation Solutions, Simon Littlewood has an impressive “to do” list in front of him. After a six-month project getting to know every corner of the business, he is in the process of setting out his plans for the future.
Construction and excavation is a world he knows very well. Littlewood graduated with a civil engineering degree from Loughborough University in 1993 and worked in contracting for a few years before joining Vibroplant Groundforce as a design engineer in 1997.
Over the next 19 years, he worked his way up through engineering, sales and management to become managing director of the company in 2008. “I had a fantastic 19 years at Groundforce, working with some amazing people but felt it was the right time for a change,” he says. “The opportunity to experience working for a privately-owned business was appealing as it will broaden my experience in business management.
“I knew that MGF had an ambitious outlook for the future and have a strong presence in the market. There’s already an experienced, long-serving senior team here and we’ve got a very robust business model.”
Littlewood’s appointment signals a new era for MGF. “My vision is to take the core business as it is with all its strength, efficiencies and customer focus and expand the geographical footprint in the UK,” he says. “We also feel there are opportunities for horizontal growth by developing other associated specialist product lines that our customers use every day.”
He adds that plans to trade overseas are still very much “on paper” but the company is always looking for new opportunities to grow. People development is also a big part of MGF’s future. “We need to build on what we already do well and do it even better,” says Littlewood. “This business is all about people and if we invest wisely in this area it can only benefit everyone, particularly our customers.”
Developing information technology and new technology are also key priorities, with plans in place to integrate the key systems, which will in turn improve efficiencies and management of stock.
But right at the top of Littlewood’s list is the alignment, structuring and up-skilling of the company’s sales and marketing teams. He says: “We’ve got real potential to develop our customer base.
“We want to keep the local drive but build a national team. As well as our desire to grow, we are always focussed on looking after our existing customers. It’s an exciting time to be at MGF and I’m delighted to be here.”